Landon Donovan knows the future is coming for his status as the best U.S. men’s soccer player ever. Time never stops, and nothing has made that more clear than watching the World Cup as a fan or without his home nation to capture his rooting interest for the first time since he was a teenager.
Donovan wasn’t part of the group that ultimately failed to beat Trinadad and Tobago and missed qualification for this year’s World Cup in Russia. But like fellow USMNT legend Tim Horward, he’s feeling the sting of disappointment just like everyone else. The national team is at a crossroads of sorts, and Donovan agrees the best direction for the team to take is by going young.
The former Everton and LA Galaxy forward has reason to be optimistic about the future of soccer in America, both for the national team and the soccer in the nation itself. The World Cup is coming to North America in 2026, soccer continues to grow in popularity, and a young crop of players have the chance to take the reigns of the sport stateside.
Donovan talked with Uproxx on the day the World Cup kicked off in Russia with the host nation facing Saudi Arabia. He spoke about his time in Mexico and how it’s framed this World Cup, a tournament where he also wants to see Mexico do well. He explained why supporting CONCACAF teams is important, what it means to host the 2026 tournament, and gave his favorite story about scoring the biggest goal of his career against Algeria in 2010.
How strange is it to see the World Cup unfold without you or the United States for the first time in, well, more than a decade?
Yeah. Well, since I was 16 I haven’t watched a World Cup as a fan. So, it’s been 20 years for me since I got to sort of sit back and relax and just enjoy it as a fan. It was definitely that this morning, mixed with a little bit of sadness. Just you know, knowing that the U.S. are not there again.
It will be tough for a lot of people to watch the World Cup and not think about the failure of missing it. Will there be a point in this World Cup where U.S. fans are going to be able to just watch what’s happening and appreciate it for what it is and not think about what could have been?
I mean, I can only speak for myself. It’s always gonna be in the back of your mind, so I don’t think I can remove that. I mean, you’ll get caught in each game and be excited, but you wanted that every four or five-day build-up to the U.S. game and the anxiety and excitement and fear and all that associated with it. We’ll keep saying it, but it’s disappointing and it’s sad, but it’s the reality. But the World Cup is still an incredible event. It’s still fun. It’s still people partying and enjoying it. It’ll just be missing that American pride piece.
If there are any good things that have happened this week it’s that it’s been announced that the U.S. will host the World Cup in eight years. How many people will look at that as the chance to get retribution and kind of show the growth of the game in America?
I think what it does is it gives us something to look forward to. But we have to remember too we’ve got the 2022 World Cup that, in my opinion, if we don’t qualify for that and then build into 2026, we’re really, really missing a big opportunity. So I think that has to be the initial focus, but long-term I think all of us, and I can’t imagine anybody who’s not ecstatic about the prospect of the U.S. hosting a World Cup along with Mexico and Canada.
This will prove out over time, but I think it’s going to be the biggest sporting event in the history of the world. And so we’ve got to make sure that we take advantage of that in every way.
With the U.S. not in the World Cup this year a lot of people and brands are sort of saying, “What about Mexico?” And I think for a lot of hardcore U.S. fans, that’s sort of a tough thing to accept based on the rivalry that the teams have had. What would you say to people that are maybe skeptical of that?
Well, I understand. I get it. Right? But two things for me: One I see the big picture and if all of our CONCACAF teams go crashing out of the World Cup and we didn’t qualify out of that group of teams, that doesn’t look good for us either, right? So, that’s one.
But two, I just spent four months of my life in Mexico and I got to know the people. Every single day I heard people talking about the national team, the World Cup and this curse of not making it to the quarterfinals. Every day. And so for these people who I really have grown fond of, there’s so much passion around this and they’re so excited for it and I really find myself rooting for them and wanting to see them do well.
I talked to Alexi Lalas last week and he said a very similar thing, that as much as the rivalry has been there and Dos a Cero is a huge part of American soccer culture, Mexican culture is part of America itself, and that seems like it’s something worth rooting for in this World Cup.
Of course. And listen, I grew up in southern California, so I learned soccer from Mexicans. I mean, I owe my soccer career to Mexicans. So I understand why the rivalry is heated and I lived it. I was part of it. But they are our neighbors and I have many, many long-time Mexican friends and I want to see them do well.
Now, if the U.S. are playing them, of course I want the U.S. to win. But I realize that a strong Mexican team is good for us. If Mexico were an awful national team, the rivalry wouldn’t be what it is. The reason it’s special is because they’ve always been a top-15, top-10 national team. So when you beat them it’s that much sweeter, and I think that’s good for everybody.
You’re working with Modelo on a campaign that focuses on how Mexico hasn’t ever made the quarterfinals of the tournament. How did that come about?
Well as a beer who is an official beer sponsor of the beautiful game and CONCACAF, a beer company that’s Mexican and brewed in Mexico, they too want to see Mexico do well. So they creatively had myself and David Ross, who’s a World Series Champion catcher for the Cubs, get together in a bar, hang out and talk about curses. And obviously if you know anything about baseball you know that Cubs had a pretty lengthy curse that they broke in 2016.
We got to sit around and I got to hang out with someone who had a World Series ring and talk about what that was and teach him about this Mexican curse of not getting to the quarterfinals and learn about how his team had the special fighting spirit that they needed that was, superseded talent and allowed them to get to that level where they could sort of block out all the exterior noise and do something special. So it’s been a lot of fun to have the opportunity to meet someone I would have never thought I would’ve met and get to talk about sports in a really fun way. So it’s been a really great, really great for all of us.
You scored maybe the most important goal in American men’s soccer history against Algeria in 2010. I’m sure you’ve met a bunch of people in the years since and they’ve told you stories about where they were watching that and how much that goal meant to them. Is there one story that stands out about somebody who maybe saw that goal and just had to tell you about it?
Many years later I had a practice with the Galaxy, and our PR guy introduced me to someone and it was two gentleman and they walked up. They said, “Hey, really nice to meet you. I was in the stadium that day when you scored against Algeria.” I said, “Wow. I mean, I only met a handful of people that could say that.” He said, “Do you remember at the end of the game you grabbed the ball and you kicked it up into the stands?” And I said, “Yeah. Very vividly.”
He said, “Well I caught the ball.” I mean what are the odds, first of all, that it’s gonna land in an American’s hands? And then for them to be able to make their way to L.A. to say that and tell me that story? It was pretty damn cool. So, it’s certainly something I’ll never forget.
Did he have it with him? Did you get a chance to sign it?
He did have it with him and I did sign it.
At this point there have been plenty of post-mortems about the U.S. missing the World Cup and what went wrong in the lead up to qualifying, but what do you think has to change in the next four years as they qualify for 2022? Is it about embracing youth? Is it changing the way that we develop young talent. What are some things that you think need to be fixed?
Well developing young talent, it’s the long-term answer, right? And that’s so that in 2030 and 2034 and 2038 we don’t have this. But in the short term, it’s about how do we get a group of players together who understand what the moment is about to make sure that this doesn’t happen. I don’t care if they’re 16 or 46 years old. We just need to make sure this doesn’t happen again. That has to be the goal immediately. If we don’t achieve that then we’re not going to qualify again, and that, to me, just cannot happen.
The national team has pushed youth in their latest friendlies and that seems to have worked out well. The draw against France, for example, was very encouraging. Do you think it’s important to let the young guys figure things out and sort of maybe phase out a couple of the players who maybe have more experience but might not be a part of the long-term for U.S. soccer?
In my opinion — and listen, I’m not the coach so I’m not the perfect person to ask — but you need to find out now whether or not, or in the next year or two, whether or not certain players have what it takes when qualifying comes around. So you need to find environments and games where you can judge these young players realistically to say, “Hey, if we need to go to Trinidad on the 10th game of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, can I count on this guy? Can I count on that guy?” That’s what we need to find out, and to me, that’s what the next two years should be about 100 percent.
A guy like Christian Pulisic obviously is going to be the face of U.S. Soccer moving forward, but is there another player in particular that you’re very excited about seeing develop and sort of take on a new role for the seats?
They’re quite a few, and I’m always reluctant to overhype because you need to prove it. Christian has certainly proven it. Weston McKennie is starting to prove it at Schalke, who are our Champions League club now, so it’ll be interesting to see his development. Tim Weah is playing at PSG getting some minutes at the end of the year so, how will he progress and can he find his way into the first team? Josh Sargent is another one who’s starting to make some waves and scored his first goal a few weeks ago. Some of the defenders are starting to show that they are dependable. Matt Miazga had a great season in Holland and he’s doing well now. Cameron Carter-Vickers is getting opportunities.
So there are guys with significant potential, and like I said, now we need to find out can they keep their job with their club team all the time on a consistent basis. Then can we put them in environments where they’re really tested to the max so that when you have to go to Honduras or you have to go to Costa Rica or you have to go to Mexico, that they’re ready for it and you can handle the job.
A lot of the guys that you mentioned are playing outside of MLS, and MLS is very important for the development of soccer in America and also for developing national team talent. But everyone’s different and develops at a different pace. Is there an ideal route for players? And do you think it’s best to maybe start in MLS and then go elsewhere, as you did, or should these players be more encouraged and more willing to go overseas at younger ages?
It’s completely individual. But what I would say is even as soon as five years ago being at an MLS academy was not the best choice for a young kid, because they just didn’t get the exposure or the experience that they would get playing at an academy in other parts of the world. That is now changing. And so should a kid be one of 50 kids from around the world in a German youth academy? Or should a kid be going to FC Dallas youth academy? I would say FC Dallas youth academy. They’ve proven that they can develop players and they have a coach there who also gives the young players a chance to play.
So it’s starting to change. A few teams are doing it much better than other MLS teams, but that will continue to change with the resources they’re investing. I always say to kids when they’re making these decisions, I went to Germany when I was 16 and I realized on about the third day I was there that I was one of 30, or 40, or 50 kids just like me, and they weren’t supporting me and helping me. They were just wanting to see which of these kids would make it and become the one or two players who made the first team.
You juxtapose that with if you’re a L.A. Galaxy youth player who’s 17 and is a really good player, you are going get every opportunity to succeed. It’s much different from an opportunity standpoint if you’re a young American player in Major League Soccer who’s trying to break in versus you’re a young American player somewhere overseas where they don’t have that incentive to develop an American player. If you’re just absolutely, equally on par with a German player, the German player’s gonna get the opportunity. Whereas if you’re absolutely equal on par in every way as a L.A. Galaxy academy player, you’re gonna get the opportunity.
Academies around the world are operated very differently. I was in Spain a few months ago and toured Villarreal and saw just how much they invest their budget in their academies and the youth system. They want to keep those guys in their system for as long as possible, and then when they make the main club, maybe sell them to fund the rest of the operation. But that kind of system doesn’t happen everywhere. Is it hard when you’re young and being courted by clubs to see the difference between these academy programs? Do you think players get kind of wowed by the names of the places you could possibly go and really not know what’s best for them?
That’s a great question, and of course you’re gonna get wowed. If Dortmund come and say “we want you,” how do you not take that seriously? But the reality for every player is, and it’s different for every player, the question is, are you going to develop and are you going to get a chance to play? Because eventually if you’re not playing, you’re not gonna develop at the highest rate you should. That has to be question number one, am I gonna get an opportunity to play? If the answer’s no, then you should think about going somewhere else, no matter where it is. I think that has to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind.